It's been a pretty busy week in north India - Delhi and Agra specifically - since returning from Varanasi. For a start, my girlfriend, Danielle, arrived in Delhi for a two-and-a-half week holiday in India. To my relief, and maybe even slight surprise, she really took to Delhi, though perhaps less so Agra. The chaos and mess and touts and noise didn't faze her too much, as long as she had a hot shower. Fortunately, she has had this on three out of five days so far (let's not focus on the cold shower and the lack of any shower for now...).
My train back from Varanasi, last week ended up arriving at 8pm, a mere 13 hours later than scheduled. This screwed up my sight-seeing plans for the day, which included a comprehensive look at my two Wonders in Delhi - Akshardham Temple and the Baha'i House of Worship, more commonly called the Lotus Temple. Instead, I had time to eat and check my email, then go back to my cheap-but-dirty hotel, crush a cockroach underfoot, and get some sleep. The following day I intended to have a wander around Connaught Circle, an area of Delhi with some interesting markets and handicraft emporiums, but this was a little sabotaged by Delhi citizen's. My mission was to find models of Akshardham and the Lotus Temple, to add to my collection, and I knew these would be difficult to get. Usually I would brush off the "friendly stranger", but on that morning I thought they would lead to me a useful shop, especially if I specified very early on what I was looking for. I was wrong. Two friendly strangers took me way out of the way to a shop that had neither item, and wasted my entire morning.
It's probably fair to say that India is its own worst enemy at time, as the touts are about as time-wasting and annoying as the massive train delays and the dense city traffic. Plus load of sights are closed on Mondays for reason I've not yet discerned, which sabotaged a whole day of sight-seeing we had planned for Delhi. If you can shrug off the hassle and fumes - which Danielle and I could - Delhi is packed with amazing stuff. The weather is cool-to-cold this time of year, which has substantially helped, and as I write, which is on the aeroplane from Delhi to Goa, our only regret is that we didn't have more time in Delhi. After arriving almost two weeks ago prepared for the worst, I instead found a massively interesting city that I barely scratched the surface of. I would happily have spent another week, visiting fascinating landmarks, pushing through thick markets, dodging touts, whizzing about in auto-rickshaws (Danielle was a big fan, thinking they were "cute", although was less appreciative when we spent 90 minutes in one in the freezing cold), and eating great food in rooftop restaurants without alcohol licences, therefore hiding the beer bottle under the table.
In the end, the only sights I managed to see were my two Wonders, and the plethora of other world-class sights will have to wait another day. Humayun's Tomb, the Red Fort, and Rashtrapi Bhavan were all at one-time seriously considered for my list, and there are a lot more out there. And there will be another day. Because although Delhi is exhausting, Danielle agrees with me that it needs another, better visit. And not just for the buildings, but for the experience. Grit your teeth, grin a little, and march down the streets as though you mean it, because Delhi is great fun, hard work, and a whole big bag of joy and hell mixed together and shaken about.
So I met Danielle from the airport on the 12th, after not a little hassle. It turns out that to enter "Arrivals" at Indira Gandhi Terminal 3, you need a Visitor's Pass. Fine, but they won't let you in with a bag. I tried to leave mine at left luggage but they won't accept a bag with a laptop. It was a somewhat exasperating situation that was only resolved by paying 100 Rupees to a guy selling Pepsi from a stand to take care of my bag while I went into the airport. Lesson learnt - don't take your laptop if you intend waiting for someone in Delhi airport.
Our first night was spent in extravagant luxury at the Hilton, a far cry from cockroach crushing at a hotel with no shower from the night before. Our next day we met up with Burness, who had taken a detour while I'd returned to Delhi and had visited the Buddhist holy city of Bodh Gaya where the Dalai Lama was also visiting. This was our only decent day of sight-seeing we managed in Delhi, seeing both the Lotus Temple and Akshardham. By the time we'd seen these, and Danielle and I had relocated to a hotel nearer the train station (the Hilton was great, but in the middle of nowhere) we had time only for a late evening meal and a few hours sleep till our 6.15am train the following morning.
Agra filled the next couple of days, and I think our opinion pretty much mirrors that of everyone else in the world: great sights, shame about the city. I like the bustle and mess of north India, but Agra wasn't much fun. Too much bustle, too little fun. A bit too aggressive, the touts a little too annoying. Every rickshaw driver we got tried to give us "the sell", whether it be a day's tour with him or a little excursion to his friend's shop. It's like being on a beautiful beach on a beautiful day, but getting pestered and bitten by mosquitoes.
The two Wonders in Agra are Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, the latter of these being one of the most famous buildings in the world and therefore with a lot to live up to in terms of expectation. Fortunately, once past the touts on the outside, the inside is much less hassle-free, except for the multitude of Indian tourists who want to take their photo with you - being a white person is a little like being a minor celebrity it would seem. There are now numerous households in India with a photo of their baby being held or sitting next to Danielle.
My reviews on both these Wonders will follow too. We spent one night in Agra and the majority of two days, with our time mostly spent either at the Wonders or at our hotel. Burness pulled a blinder and selected a hotel with an excellent rooftop restaurant with an amazing view of the Taj Mahal, so that was a pleasure to sit at and enjoy the view. The only other activities we squeezed in was some hunting for an Agra Fort souvenir (there are countless millions of Taj Mahal replicas, but Agra Fort is utterly neglected) and a visit to what the touts called the "Baby Taj", presumably because "The Tomb Of I'Timad-ud-Dualah" doesn't sound so alluring. It was really pretty, and much less packed than the "mother Taj", although Danielle had her lipstick appropriated by an irritating little girl.
Back to Delhi then, and I suffered a morning of the only "Delhi belly" that has affected any of us since we've arrived. Considering the tales I'd heard, this is pretty good going. Last night we found a place selling reasonably priced cocktails - finding a bar in Delhi is difficult enough - and enjoyed a mixed bag of cocktails: Pina Colada pretty good, Cosmopolitan pretty bad (orange juice and salt?). And now, to Goa, where a friend of Danielle's gets married, I complain about beaches, and I'll begin the mammoth task of writing up four reviews on prospective World Wonders.